A/N: Even if you forget Winnie the Pooh, Winnie the Pooh will never forget you... or something. But yes, after an incredibly long hiatus and a whole bunch of uni work, I am back writing and it honestly feels wonderful. I know it's been a long time and I honestly can't apologise enough but we're back! The plan, at least on my end is to go into full gear with this story and get it finished. I can't even remember when we started this story, but it's about time we finished it. So let's get on with that!

Chapter XXX

Countdown to Destruction

It was dark in the room when Sora finally awoke. He was staring up at a darkened ceiling and, as he sat up, a room simple and lacking many material objects save for the bed he was lying in, a bedside table next to him with a lamp and drawer, a wardrobe against the wall to the left of him, and a rugged carpet that looked as though it hadn't been dusted in a long time on the wooden floor. In all it was very plain, but he was appreciative enough to have a nice bed to lie in at the very least.

As he sat up, he was slightly overwhelmed at the effort it took just to lift his head off the pillow. Once he did, it also became quite apparent to him that he was naked from the waist up. The draft in the room had him clutching his arms immediately.

He tried to think back to what had happened to land him in such a situation as he gave his arms a rub. That's right. The Wild Hunt. Such a gangly and terrifying creature. And he had become the Rider in an attempt to stop it. He had been out in the desert at the time so Aqua and them must have dragged him all the way back. And then someone had taken his shirt off and that was where he really had to stop thinking before he could blush any more furiously than he was now.

He stood up and walked over to the wardrobe, pulling it open and finding the top half of his attire supported on a few wooden hangers. After putting them all on, he made for the exit when the door opened and a woman he had never seen before froze in place, just as he did. It was these kinds of interactions in which he had no idea what to start with. One would think a usual "Hello" would suffice but instead the situation was so comical that he was afraid the first thing to come out instead would be laughter.

He relaxed a little when it was the woman who spoke first. "You're up! You're not hurting anywhere, are you? You're okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, totally fine," Sora quickly assured her with raised hands. He backed away slightly as she took the particularly nosy action of moving in to examine him suspiciously. "Um… who are… you?"

"Oh, right, strange when a random girl walks into your room and starts examining you, I guess," the woman said.

"Heh, a bit," Sora said. It was enough to exchange a chuckle out of both of them. As moonlight crossed over through the doorway, Sora got a better look at the stranger—dark shoulder-length hair and brown skin with full lips and a button nose. She also had a beauty mark under her right eye.

"The name's Lily. And before you say it, yes, the Lily of the valley jokes have been done to death," she said.

"Huh? I have no idea what that means," Sora said, arching a brow.

"Oh. Forget I said anything then," Lily said. It didn't take long for her to recover from her shade of embarrassment. That she sprang back to life so suddenly was honestly incredible to Sora. "Are you sure you're alright?"

"Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Were you the one who… my clothes-"

"Yes… I mean, I had to, to check if you weren't hurt or anything. I do my best to look after the town's residents after all. When Jacob and your friends brought you in, you were also sweating buckets. Well, I guess I should say that was the main reason I took your shirt off."

"Right." Sora nodded quickly. She was definitely not helping to improve the awkwardness in the conversation in the slightest. He decided to change the topic. "So you've been looking after everyone here for a while, huh?"

Lily bit her lower lip and nodded her head. "Dickson found me out in the middle of the desert, an abandoned babe of an orphan crying underneath the last visible star in the sky. He brought me back to Penance and raised me as though I were his own. As soon as I was able to get my own place, I started paying back my debt to him, to Jacob, to everyone in the town. When one of the children scrape a knee or break an arm, which is more often than you might think, I tend and look after them. It's the least I can do for what they've given me."

"He found you… out in the desert, by yourself? There wasn't even a hint of who your parents were?" Sora asked.

Lily shook her head. "Only a piece of paper. Strangely when I look at it, I find myself at peace. It's from the sermon on the mount."

"The what?" Sora asked.

"The sermon on the mount? From the Bible? Luke 12:27?" Lily pointed out as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

"Err…" Sora let out an elongated croak as he tried to piece together what she was even saying.

Lily sighed. She walked over to the bedside table and opened the drawer. After grabbing something from it, she quickly returned to Sora and held a piece of paper out to him. Taking it into his hands, Sora briefly looked at her before looking down at the piece of paper: "Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin…" He looked up from the paper and to the young woman. "Lily..."

"And that's how Dickson decided my name—from a piece of paper. My parents, or whoever left me there… I think to myself, surely if they didn't care, they wouldn't have left that with me? But then why leave me in the desert on my own in the first place?"

"Do you wish you could meet them?" Sora asked.

Lily paused for a moment before responding. "I wonder but nothing beyond that. There's no point. Family is who you make home with and I already have a very large and wonderful family. Still… there are times when I do feel… lonely, especially when I look up at the stars, and it's something I can't understand, especially when I am surrounded by people who love me. But then I think back to this verse. That everything I need requires no labour to achieve for I am blessed with a wonderful life."

Sora didn't say anything. Merely, the straight lines of his mouth widened into a grin as he looked at her and, infectious as it was, she looked back at him with a sheepish smile.

"You know, you should try reading it some time," she suddenly spoke. At his confused look she continued, "The Bible. I find it very calming when I'm lost and in search of guidance."

"Oh. Yeah, I don't read," Sora said, in a quite carefree tone. Besides, unless said book had the secret of controlling his powers, finding the remaining Hell Stones or stopping Xehanort, he wasn't sure it would be of much help to him.

He also couldn't stick around here for long anyway. He had just up and left Radiant Garden without so much as telling anyone, primarily because he hadn't accounted for ending up in the middle of a desert.

"Well, thanks, Lily, but I'm fine. Really. And I appreciate everything you've done for me but me and my friends really need to be moving along now. We've been gone for long enough as it is," he told her.

"But wouldn't it be better to wait until daybreak? It's only midnight," Lily reasoned. That in itself wasn't so much the problem, although it would be hard to explain to her that time worked differently in other worlds. What was trickier was getting himself, Larxene and Aqua to Radiant Garden in one piece. He wanted to talk with them as soon as possible about their next steps but he also couldn't see himself successfully convincing Lily otherwise.

"By the way, thank you for helping Jacob bring the children back to us in one piece. They're curious, which isn't a bad thing to have, but it almost got them killed today, so I'm glad you were here when it took them a step too far."

Sora threw her a quick smile. "Oh, it was nothing. Actually, do you know if Aqua and Larxene are still up?"

"Um, Larxene, the blonde one? Went to sleep almost as soon as we got back actually. She must have been pretty tired," Lily started. Sora suspected it was a bit more than just Larxene being tired though. "And Aqua we had to coax into getting some sleep. She was really worried about you. Didn't want to leave your side. So I promised her I'd look after you until she woke up again… you two aren't…"

"Dating? No! No, we're not. I mean, she's nice and all, I guess but-" Sora was left blushing furiously at the sudden image of Aqua popping into his head. He silently cursed whatever stages of puberty he was going through and looked back to the bed. "Actually, I think I'll try to get some sleep after all," he finally decided.

A few hours later, Sora awoke once again but to the broad strokes of daylight passing through the window. He was barely out of bed before he received yet another guest, albeit less confusing and embarrassing than the last—at first, anyway.

"Sora, how are you? Are you hurt anywhere?" Aqua asked, rushing in through the door. She ran over and pulled him into a tight hug which sent him blushing furiously. At least Aqua couldn't see it. As happy as he was to see her, Sora truly did wonder if nobody bothered to knock anymore.

"Yeah, not too bad. Sorry for worrying you," he apologised, scratching the back of his head.

"Just… give us more of a warning next time. I think I'll find that I age just about every time you go off and do something like that. Just how do Riku and Kairi get through the day without a stroke?" Aqua asked.

"The answer is probably that we don't actually spend that much time fighting together. Probably for the best if I'm that controversial although I don't think I've ever heard from Donald and Goofy," Sora said, letting out a chuckle.

"They were probably being nice," Aqua said.

"Ouch! I mean I could believe that if it were Goofy, maybe. Donald… I don't think so," Sora said. The two exchanged some laughter, ending only when another person stepped into the room.

"Larxene," Sora said.

"Oh, don't get too excited." Larxene rolled her eyes at Sora's less than warm response. "So… how's it going, twerp?"

"You ever think just maybe that being nice might be in your best interests?" Sora asked.

"And what would you have to give me in return?" Larxene asked.

Sora shrugged. "I don't know, but it's good karma."

Larxene covered her mouth as she let out a fake yawn. "Oh please, don't make me laugh. And I don't believe in karma, kid. I live in the real world where sometimes shitty people get away with shitty things."

"But you don't have to be one of those people. Just because you can get away with something, doesn't mean you should do it," Aqua said.

Larxene shook her head and threw her hands up in the air, defeated. "Why are we even talking about this? Here. Don't ever say I don't do anything nice for you."

She fished into her pocket and pulled out the Hell Stone they had gotten from Maleficent. "This fell out of your pocket back in the desert."

Sora reached out and after a moment's hesitation, grabbed the stone from her and put it back in his pocket.

"You're welcome," Larxene said, turning to look away for a moment before glancing over at Aqua. "So what now? We're leaving?"

"We have what we came for. I'm sure the gang back at Radiant Garden are also wondering where we are. I don't want to keep them waiting any longer. I feel bad for not telling them where we were going," Aqua said.

"Yeah… alright, but uh… how are we getting back? Are we using a corridor of darkness again?" Sora asked.

"We can't. Sora, we were lucky the last time we went through, especially without the protection Larxene has. We can't risk doing it again. The darkness… it changes you. Warps who you are," Aqua told him. "No, we find another way."

"And what if there is no other way? What, you expect one of your king's Gummi Ships to conveniently appear out of nowhere?" Larxene asked.

It couldn't have been more well-timed if they had asked. As if on cue, they felt vibration reverberate across the entire building. They ran out onto the street to see just as many anxious and confused faces looking up at the sky, and there it was, its shape forming a giant shadow over the street.

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," Larxene said, rolling her eyes.

"See, Larxene. Good karma," Sora said.

"That is not even close and I don't want to hear it," was her dismissal. When the Gummi Ship eventually landed, it was closer towards the town's entrance and Jacob, Namyra and Lily were by their side. Somehow Jacob had managed to convince a group of rowdy and curious townsfolk, especially the children, to keep back.

"Donald! Goofy!" Sora yelled, overjoyed at the sight of his friends.

Goofy seemed all too happy to answer, but Donald was not so cheerful. As soon as he hopped off the Gummi Ship, he strutted over to Sora, summoned his staff and took a big swing at Sora's arm.

"Ow! What's that for?!"

"That's for worrying us! How could you think leaving without telling anyone anything was a good idea! Oh wait, it's you."

"Well gee, you could have just said that without hitting me! And I'm not always like that! But… I am sorry. It's just… there was something we had to do and…"

"Master Aqua! I'm so sorry. I hope he hasn't been a bother to you," an alarmed Donald quickly interjected, having noticed Aqua for the first time since leaving the ship.

"Oh, no, it's alright, Donald. Sora's right, we'll explain everything once we leave," Aqua assured him.

"Oh, treat her like royalty, sure," Sora grumbled. "How did you even find us anyway?"

"Why that's because of Master Yen Sid's magic! He managed to find ya and sent for us to come get ya!" Goofy explained.

"That beautiful bald old man. Gonna have to repay when I get back," Larxene said with a smirk.

"How do you know he's bald?" Sora asked.

Larxene looked at him as if he were stupid. "Really? He wears a large hat on his head… indoors. There's no way he's not bald."

Sora was about to refute this remark when he found that ultimately, he couldn't, so instead he just shrugged. It was an interesting hypothesis, although he was probably never going to find out in his lifetime.

He turned his attention to Jacob, Namyra and Lily. "Well, looks like we're heading off. It was nice meeting you guys."

"Yes. Thank you for taking us in," Aqua added.

"You're always welcome back, and I really do hope you take up that offer. It's been so lovely to meet the two of you. And thank you for saving the children as well," Namyra told them.

Jacob stepped forward and placed a hand on Sora's shoulder. "It feels weird, knowing what I do now, to let you go so soon. The power you harbor… it means more than you could ever imagine to us. It means more than the world could ever imagine. To us, the Rider was a symbol of justice in a time of injustice. Where cruel men learned to fear being cruel. And while I'm admittedly jealous, the fact that this power has ended up with you only proves that this can't be about just one little town. If justice needs to work, it needs to work for all, and that's a big task. You think you're up for it?"

"You make it sound overwhelming," Sora said with a nervous chuckle.

"Just remember, there can be no justice without good men, so all you really have to do is keep being a good man, Sora. As long as you have that, the rest… just comes down to experience."

"And good friends," Namyra chipped, looking over sweetly to Aqua.

As she was watching this play out, seemingly disinterested, Larxene felt a tug on her sleeve. She looked down to see the little Elrena looking up at her. In her arms was a stuffed toy rabbit. It wasn't the best looking rabbit. It was worn down and one of its button eyes was dangling off the creature by a single thread.

"Here. I want you to have this. I made it."

This, Larxene was surprised by. "Made this? You?"

"I was bored, okay? He doesn't exactly look the best and I apparently didn't a good job with his eyes but I hope you like it."

Larxene gently took hold of the rabbit and held it up in front of her. Indeed, it wasn't the cutest stuffed rabbit she had seen. It was actually quite ugly and slightly terrifying due to its blank stare. But there was also something charming in that.

"He's not that bad. Does he have a name?" Larxene asked.

"I actually haven't thought of one yet. Maybe you could name him?" Elrena suggested.

Larxene threw the toy another quick look before returning to the child. "I'll let you know what I've come up with when I come back."

Elrena's eyes lit up immediately. "Is that a promise?"

Larxene awkwardly bobbed her head. "Of sorts. If I feel like it."

Aqua, who had been listening in on their conversation, couldn't help but chuckle. "No need to be so bristly, Larxene. No one will judge you if you just say yes."

Larxene threw her a dirty look for a moment and then her face softened all too quickly. She looked back down at Elrena and rubbed head, offering her a smile. "If those boys push you around, well, let's just say I would practice my throwing."

She dropped her arm and summoned one of her knives, holding it out for the girl to take. "There's your promise. I'll be needing that back someday, and when I do, I'll be expecting pitch perfect accuracy. Understand?"

"Got it," Elrena said, as Larxene placed the handle into the girl's palm and closed her hand around it. Larxene left it at that with a quick wink.

Sora had been sat, staring down at his hands for the last couple of minutes. Somewhere, in the distance, there were voices, but he wasn't fully concentrating on them to hear what they were saying. He could feel the hum of the Gummi Ship's engine underneath as it carried them off through the vast sea of stars to their destination.

His fist now crunched into a ball, he brought it closer to his chest as he felt an uncomfortable tightness. He could feel the weight of something else being attached to him when he concentrated. It wasn't a pleasant feeling at all.


Sora snapped out of his thoughts and looked up to see Aqua.

"You okay?"

Sora began tapping the armrest of his chair. "I… no. I'm not. I just wonder about it, this thing inside me. I finally know what it is, or at least, what it means to Jacob and the people of Penance. It's like… I feel that this is the power that can help us, you know? We can beat Xehanort a-and save Terra and Ven and everyone else. And I was planning on finding a way to get rid of this power after, but what if another Xehanort pops up, or even worse?"

"Well, I know I'd feel much more comfortable if you didn't have to rely on it. We understand so little of it, but… what I do know is that Donald and Goofy, Riku and Kairi, they have to know. You can't keep worrying them like this and they'll find out eventually, just like I did and how do you think they'll take it that you hid it from them?" Aqua asked.

"You don't have any deafen magic, do you?" Sora asked.

Aqua laughed. "I'm afraid not, but I'll be by your side when it happens."

Sora smiled. "Thanks. Still, it's probably not going to be pleasant. I won't blame you if you want to leave halfway in."

Aqua laughed and looked towards the window and the vast reaches of space outside. "I can't help but wonder… if we hadn't come into your lives so suddenly, what would you be doing right now? You wouldn't even have to deal with this power. You would have a normal life. I can't help but feel I'm partially responsible for taking that away from you."

"Aqua, my story started the day a girl washed up on the islands from an outside world. I can't see how I was ever going to have a normal life. Everything that's happened so far? It's changed me, and for the better, I truly believe that. You don't come away from something like this the same as when you started. It's made me realise how much my friends mean to me, and that I would give anything to protect them. If it means bearing something like this for a while, I know it'll be worth it. I won't let Xehanort hurt you or anyone else anymore."

"Sora…" Aqua had to look away for a moment, tears forming in her eyes. He had said that journeys like his changed people, but clearly not too much, for he was still the happy boy full of love that Aqua had met all those years ago. She hadn't been there to see him grow, to help him through his struggles. That was going to change. "I won't let Xehanort hurt you either. Any of you."

Xehanort could still feel it lingering in there. In the back of his mind. Memories that did not belong to him. Oh how he had come to resent the acquisition of a new body. It had started as a simple wish—to see what lay beyond and create a new world of perfect balance. Time was his enemy. Time was what he did not have, and he fixed that.

But as he looked over at Ventus' lifeless form, he was reminded of one simple fact. This body could never truly be his. He saw them occasionally, whenever he looked at the boy. Memories of his vessel's time with the boy. They seeped into his head slowly, venomously, and he could not shake them off, for if he tried to do so, it only made the memories more powerful.

Memories of hope. Memories of happiness. The boy's heart was fighting back with all the strength it could muster. Clinging onto each memory like a hook as a way of climbing its way back to the surface. Truth be told, despite being in control at present, Xehanort was not sure if he could keep it in check for long.

"Ventus, if only you knew how much he's fighting. The anger he must feel that I am closer to you than he can ever be." Xehanort brought his thumb and index finger, gripping Ven's chin and giving it a turn. He eventually let go and looked away. "Don't worry. It will all be over soon. His hopes, and yours."

"Still talking to yourself, man? Are all the people in your realm like you? I think we're doing a favour merging this place "

Xehanort simply sneered. "Human emotions are complicated. Perhaps far more than they need to be at times. It helps to externalize those thoughts at times. A demon such as you couldn't possibly understand."

Gekido hissed through his teeth. "Hey, it's not like I wasn't human. Once upon a time. All of us were."

"Do you remember your past life?" Xehanort asked.

"No point. It's baggage. It's not who I am now. But… I suppose I could indulge… can't say I remember much about my life because I don't try to. I had parents who expected the world of me. Growing up, I had high expectations placed on my shoulders to escape the cycle of poverty that kept us chained. My parents… they were farmers, simple peasants harvesting the land and selling in the local market to make ends meet. To feed me. There was a type of caste in the place I lived. A social divide between rich and poor. I remember staring up at the palace which hosted those gouging themselves silly with plenty of food and the finest silks imported from other nations. Those who looked down on people like us, who gave them their food, with such contempt.

"Of course, I had been conditioned to think it normal at the time. That no matter what, the iron caste was impenetrable. We lowly commoners aspired to become just like them, and when we did obtain such a status, we ended forgetting where we came from, ashamed to even acknowledge such a past. I could not tell you how many times I had heard some in the slums say they would climb the ladder to make things better for us at the bottom. That I had more respect for those who did not hide their true intentions than those that said that should tell you all you need to know about whether they fulfilled their promises. That was my first encounter with the greed of mankind."

"And you aspired to be the same?"

"I had no choice. Doctors in the slums were terrible in diagnosing symptoms, not that it was there fault, but they did not have the resources that those who lived above us did and the ones that did have the most expertise? They asked for far more money than we had. My father passed away from frequent misdiagnosis and I, in fear of losing my only remaining family, aimed in escaping the slums to give her a better life. But climbing that ladder… it asked so many things of me. Things that were hard to take back.

"There was a war at the time, and I had conscripted knowing that if I returned, it would mean a new beginning for her and me—a better beginning. I can't remember how long that war lasted, only the unspeakable acts that I had committed in order to survive. And the worst part? It didn't matter in the end. My mother passed from illness when I eventually returned to the slums to tell her the good news. I was wracked with guilt on the inside, but to those who heard me on the outside, they could hear only laughter. A sick, twisted sense of irony made manifest. If I had stayed with her, things might have been different."

"The need to never be satisfied…" Xehanort said, following Gekido's story. "If all those sins could be gone—Greed, wrath, pride, sloth, envy, lust, gluttony… what then would become of this world? Would people be able to live lives of meaning, free from the chains of suffering they've induced upon themselves?"

"I think hell would be empty," Gekido said.

"You say that as if that's my concern," Xehanort replied, coldly.

"Touché. And then you'd be the only sinner left."

Xehanort bit his bottom lip and narrowed his eyes as though he were focusing on something in the distance. "If that is how the world sees it, then I will gladly commit the last sin of humanity in order to bring about a new beginning. A humble beginning."

"That's what I'm here for. How about you, Rose. Wanna share your story?" Gekido asked, looking over to the raven-haired demon.

"No," came Black Rose's instantaneous reply.

"Well, you are a more recent demon than me so… plenty of memories you haven't discarded yet?" Gekido asked. Rose didn't answer. He smiled at her. "Don't worry, they'll go over time as the last bit of your soul turns dark."

"If you know what's best for you, you'll stop talking before I send you straight back to hell. I really don't know how many times I have to tell you," Rose replied, hotly.

"You really should stop harassing her. What's hers to keep is hers to share at a time of her choosing. Or never," Xehanort said.

"I just think if we're working together, we should at least get to know each other somewhat. We have two days until we're doing this anyway and this place is hellishly depressing, which, to be fair, does suit a war, but it's not exactly where I would choose to hang out. Give me something… comfier," Gekido said. "But anyway, we got the stones so that trip wasn't completely wasted but… didn't you say you had a way of identifying who had the Atar?"

"And as much chaos as we inflicted, no spirit of vengeance came to save the day," Rose huffed.

"Because they weren't there," Xehanort answered. "Make no mistake. This spirit is among one of the guardians of light. It hadn't occurred to me before, but Riku and the king were previously unsuccessful in rescuing Sora. How then, was Sora saved?"

"A contract…" Black Rose said, her eyes burrowed into the ground.

"It's a hypothesis, but if we can safely rule out the guardians that were in Radiant Garden, then that narrows our search down to two. And seeming as how my destiny seems to just love revolving around that boy, I'd wager it was him."

"Well, if we know the host, it makes things a little easier for us," Rose said.

"How so? Can we kill this Ghost Rider?"

Rose shook her head. "Not unless your name's God. The Atar itself is immortal. Inextinguishable. But, if you can separate the spirit from the host and kill that host, the spirit will have to find another."

"What would separate the host?" Xehanort asked.

"Usually mystic or divine magic. These can be imbued in a weapon for instance, provided you know someone who knows those magics. I used to practice mysticism but, being a demon, I unfortunately no longer have that power," Rose explained.

"Which means we would need to find someone or something else…" Gekido said. He shrugged nonchalantly. "Well, good luck with that. I hate to admit it, but if there's one thing us demons fear, it's that spirit."

A twitch of annoyance befell Xehanort. If even these demons feared this entity, he would have to proceed with the utmost of caution. That cursed boy. He had been nothing but a nuisance in his side from day one. Was he to forever fail at the hands of this boy's heart?

He looked up at the sky and that was when an idea struck him like lightning. "Kingdom Hearts… how divine."

As Sora opened the door to Merlin's house, he was immediately closed in on like a lamb cornered by wolves. Riku had seemed all too ready to lay into Sora, it seemed, whereas Kairi was slightly behind him but sporting just as much urgency in her posture.

"Where even were you? Do you even know what happened while you were away?"

Sora frowned and looked past Riku to Kairi. "Well hello to you too. What do you mean what happened? What's he talking about?"

"The town was attacked. Suddenly more Heartless than we had ever seen came out of nowhere," Kairi explained calmly. "It was Xehanort."

Sora's eyes widened at this and his mouth parted slightly. Riku continued for her, turning his back on Sora as he talked. "It was a warning shot. Seems we don't have as much time to pull this off as we'd have liked. We have two days to prepare, if that, before we head to the Keyblade Graveyard."

"Well, what's stopping us from ignoring that? Do we really have to play to his tune?" Aqua asked. She had come in after him followed by Donald and Goofy. Larxene had stopped just short of fully entering the house.

"Apparently, we're on reserve and he has other options. That's what he told Kairi. He's not waiting," Mickey said. Unlike Riku and Kairi, he had not decided to blast Sora immediately upon coming through the door.

Sora's demeanour changed quickly and he looked over at the redhead. "Told Kairi? Did you face him alone? Are you okay?"

"I'm okay, I'm okay, Sora. Really!" Kairi assured him while blushing furiously.

"Could it be the seven princesses of heart?" Goofy suggested.

But Yen Sid, who was sitting at the table in the middle of the room, shook his head. "If that were the case, they would certainly need Kairi for that. Xehanort came in contact with her and made no effort to capture her. At the very least, we can assume that Xehanort's plan seems to involve something he may already possess. And we also have some clue as to what that new plan is. Something that was stolen in yesterday's attack."

"Stolen?" Aqua asked.

"Ienzo reported that two strange individuals came to the castle. Unfortunately, Aeleus and Dilan fought back and while Aeleus managed to get away, Dilan was not so lucky, I'm afraid."

Larxene looked over at Yen Sid for the first time in surprise. "You're kidding. That big shouldered lug? Almost wish I was there to see it." As eyes flew her way, she rolled her eyes at them. "I said almost!"

Yen Sid cleared his throat and looked back to Sora and Aqua. "Anyway, what these two strangers wanted were a particular type of stone. Two of them were taken."

The first thing Sora did when Yen Sid finished was look at Aqua, and Aqua looked back at him. It was so suspicious, so obvious a tell, that the question that came next was obvious.

"Sora? Aqua? Do you know something about this?" Riku asked.

Aqua being next to him was a blessing, Sora found, as he launched into a full explanation about the Hell Stones, the power they possessed and how he, Aqua and Larxene had obtained one from Maleficent, only to be sent hurtling to another world as Traverse Town collapsed. Of course, to explain how he knew about the Hell Stones in the first place, he also had to mention the other thing he had been keeping secret—his newfound powers and his bonding with the spirit of vengeance.

By the time he was finished, Sora was exhausted. It hadn't been easy not jumping from one point to another in his story. Even hearing his own words, it all just felt so wacky and out there, or was that just the way he told it?

Aqua placed a hand on Sora's shoulder for support and stepped forward. "I just want to add to that— please don't be too harsh on Sora. He didn't intend to hide these powers from you forever. He was just trying to sort his feelings out. This kind of power, it frightens him too, and it's not easy to talk about when you don't really understand it. If anything, we learned a little bit more about it during our time away."

"Hmm…" Yen Sid's eyes closed and he stroked his beard thoughtfully. Sora didn't claim to be a good reader of Yen Sid, but especially when the old sorcerer did that, Sora probably had better luck guessing the lottery. "Curious, although I wish you had come to us with this sooner, Sora, but I understand why you did not."

"Um… sorry for worrying you guys," Sora said, looking over to Riku, Kairi and Mickey. "I do feel bad that I wasn't here-"

"Oh, it's all water under the bridge. Right, Riku?" Kairi drove her elbow into Riku's arm, causing him to let out a silent yelp.

"Well… honestly? I can't exactly say I have any right to be angry. After I'd surrendered to the dark in order to beat Roxas, I didn't want to show my face to you. In truth, even though I'd managed to wake you up, a part of me had felt I'd failed. That I wasn't worthy enough to be with you or Kairi again. So I'm not exactly jumping at the chance to chastise you here."

"Riku…" Mickey began, but Riku smiled and shook his head.

"It's alright, Mickey. It's all in the past. What matters now is helping my best friend. Besides, after struggling against the darkness, anything seems easy to handle."

"Thanks, Riku," Sora said. His smile alone let slip the massive amount of relief that he felt that his friend had not reacted harshly to Sora's revelation. More importantly, Sora hadn't considered it that way, that he and Riku had shared the same boat. If there was anyone in this room who could understand what he was going through, it was Riku.

"Still, these Hell Stones are very concerning. Myself and Merlin will have to look into these otherworldly artefacts. As for whether they need all the stones to enact their plan or they can work with what they currently have, that remains to be seen," Yen Sid continued, pensively looking towards the shelf of books perched on the wall.

"And we have to find a way to deal with those 'thieves' as well. The description Ienzo gave us fits them to a 't'. The ones who stole the stones are the same ones who attacked us in Castle Oblivion. They were working with Xehanort back then too," Riku summarised.

"The subjugation of human souls… that's what they said a Keyblade War would bring," Mickey said.

"Talking as though they were not human themselves. But rather something else entirely," Yen Sid said. "I wonder…"

"Do you have something?" was Riku's quick response.

Yen Sid shook his head. "It is too early to say. More importantly, we only have a couple of days to prepare. We should be prepared to fight these new adversaries at full strength as well as Xehanort and whatever other schemes he may have planned. Sora, how much time do you think you need to come to terms with your powers?"

"Master Yen Sid, I'm all for helping Sora here but… are you saying we should rely on this power? One we don't even fully understand?" Riku asked.

"I am saying that we may just hold a wild card. Up until this point, Xehanort has been able to predict to a certain extent our capabilities and what we will do. With this new development however, this throws a wrench into his plans. It is something he could not have foreseen, and that is very important. We can use that to our advantage."

"I was honestly thinking the same thing," Sora said, folding his arms. "I mean, we really don't have any other options, do we?"

"We can think of another way. There can't just be one option available to us, using them like some kind of magic bullet. Yes, if we had enough time to figure out your powers, then maybe I'd be more comfortable with it. But we can't just rely on this because it could go well… it could. But if it goes badly… then we have nothing to fall back on. If this is our trump card, we should play it like one. Use it when we have no other options."

"And risk him harming you or the others in the process? I'm not going to take that risk. Plus, what you're saying doesn't change the fact that I'll have to learn how to handle this thing's power anyway," Sora said. He looked back over to Yen Sid and smiled, thumping his chest proudly. "You can count on me! I'll be ready in time."

"Ever the optimist. Then we shall make our final preparations henceforth. Master Aqua, may I ask that you take over the training for Kairi?" Yen Sid asked.

Aqua looked over to Kairi and smiled. "I'd be honored to."

"And Riku and Mickey, I would like you to assist Lea in his training. He has been slacking off as of late."

"Again?" Riku asked. He sighed and looked to Sora. "He's worse than you."

"Hey, it's not like I've been doing nothing this whole time!" Sora countered.

"Emphasis on this whole time," Donald smugly replied.

"Alright, next time you guys are in trouble, I'll doze right off since I'm clearly not appreciated around here!" Sora threatened. As everyone laughed in response to this, Sora couldn't help but smile himself, knowing that the burden he had carried upon entering Merlin's house was gone. If only it could stay this way forever. This moment—this was what he was fighting for in two days' time, and to that end he would do anything to keep them safe. If this deal with a mysterious spirit came as part of the package, then so be it.